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December: North American Archeoastronomy

The contemplation of celestial things will make a man both speak and think more sublimely and magnificently when he descends to human affairs. - Cicero

Wonder at the immense and unfathomable universe connects people in every time and every place to each other. We share a wonder at the movement of the sun and moon and invent ways to track them, making calendars so that we might plant and harvest and carry out ceremonies at opportune times. We see shapes in the stars, creating stories about the beings we find there.

Ancient astronomers throughout the world found ways to track celestial movements and to predict the year's important events, including winter solstice which (in the northern hemisphere) is the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year.

Many people are fascinated by the astronomical workings of the famous stone circles of Stonehenge on England's Salisbury Plain, but how about the woodhenges here in the U.S.?

In the early 1960s, at the extraordinary mound site of Cahokia in Illinois, archeologists discovered evidence for circles of wooden posts, or woodhenges, that were solar observatories. Such discoveries led to a serious archeological fascination with ancient astronomy, including the extensive earthworks and effigy mounds of the American midwest, such as Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, Serpent Mound, and Sunwatch Indian Village and Archaeological Park.

As are many of us, archeoastronomers are captivated by Chaco Culture National Historical Park, where there is evidence at several locations for astronomical observations. Near the east end of the park, for example, sits the Great House of Wijiji. Two weeks before the winter solstice the sun rises to align at the north corner of a distinctive notch, and two weeks later, on the winter solstice, at the south end of the same notch.

There is also a solstice marker at Fajada Butte. It is important to protect such places. Unfortunately, modern foot traffic has worn into fragile soils and added to rain and wind erosion. The erosion in turn causes the shifting of these carefully designed rock slabs and disturbs the patterns of light on the solstice markers. If you visit, please heed the restricted access and help to preserve these sites.

In Ancient Observatories, Timeless Knowledge NASA explores connections between science and culture by relating NASA concepts to traditional Native American knowledge. NASA, the National Park Service and others cooperate to examine and record the traditions of the sun both at Chaco and in the Yucatan.

Transfixed by the stars? Delighted by the moon? Learn more about Natural Lightscapes and the NPS Night Sky Team.